Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
Despite what some may say, China is not and has never been North Korea’s puppet master.
From a certain point of view, the DPRK has all the makings of a Chinese satellite state. It has for a long time distracted and irritated China’s main rival, the United States, and is very much dependent on the Middle Kingdom for its economic survival.
China — rich, rapidly growing, authoritarian but comparatively well-run — seems like it might be a model for North Korean leaders to emulate. Plus, at first glance, Pyongyang’s elite would benefit hugely from having Beijing bankroll their development and protect them from being absorbed into South Korea.
Yet the Kim family and their entourage have in fact done everything they can to stay free of Chinese control.
KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE, BUT NOT TOO CLOSE
Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the North Korean state and the founding king of the Kim dynasty, spoke fluent Chinese and reasonable Russian. His Korean was rather heavily influenced by his Chinese language education.
He composed poems in classical Chinese, loved to emulate Chinese propaganda styles, and sometimes copied Chairman Mao’s policy initiatives – usually only superficially, fortunately for the North Korean people.
The Chinese saved him and his infant state from annihilation in 1950, when Uncle Sam rode to the rescue of South Korea in response to the North’s invasion.
Four years after the armistice of 1953, however, he sent Chinese troops stationed in the North packing while also purging the Korean Workers’ Party of major pro-Chinese cadres (largely people who worked under Chairman Mao in the 1930s and early 1940s). Pro-Soviet elements were dealt with in the same way.
Kim the Founder was dead set against remaining a Soviet client, and he was loath to become a Chinese one as well. His invectives against ‘revisionism’ (code for Soviet ideological and policy fashions) were often paired with attacks on ‘dogmatism’ (code for whatever the Chinese communists were doing that he didn’t like).
Kim Il Sung taught his son, Kim Jong Il, the art of social distancing in international relations: keep your friends close enough to provide aid, but not so close as to infect you with their ideological and policy viruses.
Relations with China were pretty complicated (as the North Koreans might put it), and have remained so over the last 40 years. Kim Jong Un has very much followed the same line as his father and grandfather, acting as bullfighter and milkmaid to the half-cash cow, half-charging bull-like neighboring giant.
KIM OF LOCKSLEY AND SHERIFF OF ZHONGNANHAI
Kim Jong Un flaunts his independence from China. Missile tests are primarily designed to arouse ire in Washington, but the timing is often intended to upset Beijing as well.
North Korea uses these fireworks to show the U.S. it is a threat, and a growing one at that. This will force the Americans to bargain with them and respect the DPRK as an equal.
China is not so thrilled about this strategy’s repercussions. This last thing they want is U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups sailing up and down the Yellow Sea and the deployment missile defense systems next door in South Korea.
But Pyongyang has never cared about Beijing’s concerns.
North Korea also has few qualms about occasionally stealing Chinese property. The Xiyang Group affair is probably the best example of this.
In 2012, the North Korean authorities confiscated a recently finished iron ore mine built by a Chinese company. Shockingly, the investors weren’t too happy.
In fact, they were so annoyed that they didn’t only tell the world about what the North Koreans had done — clearly with approval from Beijing — but also even published the bills for sexual services provided to visiting DPRK officials on the Chinese partner’s account.
But despite Chinese media and diplomatic pressure, the Xiyang Group ended up losing around $40 million of its investment. The North Koreans, on the other hand, had now acquired a modern iron ore mine.
This is an unusually large amount for a single stiffing, but if you talk to Chinese businesspeople in the border regions, you’ll hear many a tale of how the North Korean authorities have relieved excessively reckless Chinese investors of their greenhouse farms or small shoe factories in the North.
And let’s not forget about the sad fate of Beijing’s closest confidant in Pyongyang: Jang Song Thaek. When the uncle of the current Kim was executed back in 2013, Workers’ Party daily the Rodong Sinmun informed readers with gleeful anger that Jang had made agreements too beneficial to a certain “big, nearby country.”
Relations have improved since late 2017 though, with lots of summitry accompanied by obligatory gestures of cordial friendship.
But this is because an incensed North Korea eventually called a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests following Chinese support for the toughest UN sanctions ever imposed on the DPRK. Beijing had grown so sick of Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear antics during 2016 and 2017 that it even implemented some of its own, short-lived unilateral sanctions on their oil supply.
Even now though, with relations improving, it’s striking just how little coverage China gets in the North Korean press. Readers of the Rodong Sinmun could be forgiven for believing that Russia is North Korea’s chief benefactor and closest partner, even though trade statistics indicate Moscow’s role is insignificant in the DPRK’s continued economic survival.
INVITATION TO YOUR OWN BEHEADING
Why can’t Kim learn to love the Chinese and let them help him run the North?
China has all the money and expertise necessary to ensure that North Korea develops and stays both authoritarian and stable. China is also unenthusiastic about the prospect of a unified Korea under Seoul’s control because it does not want U.S. military bases on the Sino-DPRK border. Many CCP officials would like to see a fellow ‘red developmental state’ take shape next door as well.
But Kim is no fool. Like any leader, he wants to have as much discretion over what happens in his country.
Kim also seems to take after his father and grandfather. The current elite in Pyongyang, while not that fond of ideology, is still rather nationalistic. They don’t want their country to become subservient to China like it once was in the past.
Kim Jong Un has very much followed the same line as his father and grandfather, acting as bullfighter and milkmaid to the half-cash cow, half-charging bull-like neighboring giant
The Middle Kingdom has little reason to be fond of Kim or his immediate lieutenants, and may ditch him if they could for someone more pliant and reliant on Beijing for legitimacy.
Past puppet leaders have not fared so well.
Hafizullah Amin, the General Secretary of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, had plunged his country into chaos with his ham-fisted attempt to forcefully enforce ‘socialist revolution.’ In 1979, he made the situation worse by slaughtering his own party’s moderates, and subsequently pleaded with Moscow to dispatch an expeditionary force.
After some hesitance, Comrade Brezhnev acquiesced and sent in the Soviet Army. Amin got rather more than he bargained for though: Soviet troops stormed Amin’s palace and assassinated him.
The General Secretary didn’t realize that Moscow analysts judged him to be a zealot whose irrational policies and bad reputation were the major obstacles to stabilizing the situation in the country. He was immediately replaced by one of the few moderates who had survived the previous slaughter.
Those who run China are just as smart, tough, and cynical (maybe more so) than the Soviet decision-makers in the late 1970s. Kim may be kept in the top job even if he decides to become a Chinese vassal, but Beijing would always have the attractive option of scapegoating and replacing him with someone who is more telegenic, charismatic, and, most importantly, completely dependent on them for his or her survival.
China wouldn’t need the current Kim to run a satellite state. Beijing looked after Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, for the number of years he spent in exile in China proper and Macao. It seems that the latter was a kind of insurance policy should things go horribly wrong in North Korea.
Kim Jong Un decided to have his half-brother killed in February 2017. After Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Nam became the second member of the North Korean royalty who paid with his life for being too close to China.
NOTHING LASTS FOREVER
China does not control North Korea, but things can and do change. A serious crisis in the North could provide Beijing the opportunity to vassalize their wayward partners in Pyongyang.
If Kim Jong Un or his successor faces an implosion — that is, the disintegration of the normal state machine and Syria-like chaos in North Korea — he might think the impossible: that the advantages of quietly capitulating to the Middle Kingdom outweigh the perks of maintaining independence.
The humiliation of kneeling before Beijing comes with far fewer risks than surrendering to the South, potential human rights trials, or worse, being lynched before South Korean troops make it to Pyongyang.
In a China-dominated puppet state, all or nearly all Kim-era officials could keep their positions. If the “top 100,000” in North Korea are faced with the choice between German-style unification or living in a DPRK under the watchful eye of a Chinese ambassador, I think we can guess what the vast majority would choose.
A supplicant North Korean elite is not necessarily a pliable one, however. China may want to build some military bases in the North, similar to how the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The well-oiled engines of Soviet tanks, ready to rev up at short notice, made local elite far more attentive to polite comments from the Soviet ambassador.
A grave internal crisis in North Korea would make it easier to justify sending in Chinese ‘liberation forces,’ but this could still be possible under less dramatic circumstances as well. Either way, China would have to think about how its neighbors would react to a ‘police action’ that looks worryingly like conquest.
Kim is no fool. Like any leader, he wants to have as much discretion over what happens in his country
Another sign that the winds of change had washed across Pyongyang would be a large-scale transfer of assets to Chinese private and public companies, especially infrastructure.
Of course, such economic penetration would further justify stationing Chinese troops — exclusively to protect Chinese property and nationals, of course.
Last but not least, we’d expect to see some key positions in the North Korean bureaucracy given to those with known Chinese connections. There are no such people currently in the North Korean leadership, but they can be found or even created should the need arise.
Connections would be evidenced by frequent trips to Beijing as well as in a variety of other ways that would be visible in Chinese and/or North Korean official media.
At any rate, while a Chinese-dominated North Korea is not impossible at some point in the future, it is still yet to happen — for better or for worse.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
Despite what some may say, China is not and has never been North Korea's puppet master.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.